Darned if Tech didn’t stay close, though. The Heels never led by more than five points. The first half ended with the Jackets trailing 32-29. Said Pastner: “We did a pretty good job desensitizing the crowd. I know that sounds odd.”
With 11:59 remaining, freshman Josh Okogie made two free throws to give the Jackets a 46-45 lead. They wouldn’t trail again, which didn’t mean Pastner wasn’t expecting the staple Carolina Rally. At the under-eight-minutes TV timeout, he thought to himself, “At least this score will look respectable on the ticker.”
At the under-four timeout, Tech’s lead was six points. It would grow to 14. The Heels pressed. The Jackets broke the press for dunks. They made their free throws. “We were steady and sturdy,” Pastner said.
With 23 seconds remaining, Carolina coach Roy Williams walked down to shake Pastner’s hand because he feared the home crowd would storm the court at the final buzzer and keep the two apart. Apparently Ol’ Roy hadn’t grasped that there mightn’t have been enough Tech fans to storm anything.
Then it was over. The team picked to finish 14th in the 15-team had beaten Carolina. Even if there aren’t many more wins for these Jackets, they’ll always have this. “We’re 9-4 after 13 games,” Pastner said. “When I took the job in April, who’d have thunk it?”
Not this correspondent, and probably not this coach. “We’ve got a long way to go,” Pastner said. “Defensively we’ve been really good, and players have been excellent in their effort. But we’ve got a lot of deficiencies. Our margin for error is zero. Look at North Carolina A&T: We weren’t good and we almost lost. On Saturday we were near-perfect.”
For a program that is on its third coach since 2011, felling Carolina — which didn’t happen in five years under Brian Gregory — was a smiley-face moment. Pastner hopes to build off it but remains pragmatic: “We’re going have to be near-perfect every night. I told our team at the beginning where we’re at and what we have to do.”
He’d be lying, though, if he said he hadn’t had a happy New Year. “It’s a really big deal. I haven’t been in a program where we had to rebuild. At Arizona, we were always picked first and second in our league. At Memphis, we were picked first or second or third. I’ve never been at a place where we were picked next-to-last.”
As for Tech’s victory getting lost in the holiday whirl: Those 400 texts stood as evidence that more than a few folks had heard. “It got a lot of notice,” Pastner said. “In the recruiting world, everybody has noticed.”
Next up for Tech: Duke at Cameron on Wednesday, then Louisville at McCamish on Saturday. “Our first three ACC games are against coaches with 2,600 victories, nine national championships and three Hall of Fame rings,” Pastner said, speaking before it was announced Monday that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski would undergo back surgery on Friday. “I haven’t hit 40 yet.”
He was asked if he’d taken a screen shot of the conference standings. Duke has lost. Louisville has lost. Virginia has lost. Thanks to his team, Carolina has lost. Pastner laughed. “I did tell Marvin Lewis (once a Tech player, now an assistant athletic director): ‘We’re going into 2017 undefeated in the ACC.’ “